What karate taught me about competing with other people
My brow furrowed. I concentrated on the target in front of me, resisting the urge to wipe away the sweat running down the side of my face. I knew what I had to do. I couldn't seem to get my body to do it today.
My partner held the pad out in front of me. I had to stop tagging the target. I had to kick through it. This had always been my problem when I worked on outward crescent kicks. My "crescent" would always stop halfway. It lacked both power and precision.
"Rotate your hip more," my partner, Mark, told me. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent). "If you go from straight on, you won't be able to bring the kick across," Mark reminded me.
I nodded, attempting not to appear irritated. I kicked, managing to knock the target sideways about six inches. Better than last time at least. Not close to where it needed to be though. I let out a grunt of frustration.
"Try again," Mark said.
I scowled and kicked again. This time I brought the target down, rather than sideways. Ugh. Today was not my day.
But it was more than the kick that was irritating me today. It was Mark. It's never easy when a lower rank notices something you're doing wrong. I was a brown belt, and he was a green belt. (two ranks below me.) I should have been the one helping him. Granted, he was helping from an observational standpoint, not as a student senior to me. And I couldn't argue with good technique. Mark had a good crescent kick, and I wasn't one to give out idle compliments.
Mark was what some would call the "ideal" karate student. Young. Athletic. Coordinated. Committed. It's hard to admit when someone is doing something better than you. But he was better than me at karate. He was precise. He picked up on material quickly, and he didn't hold back when it came to trying new skills and techniques. Plus, he possessed a certain amount of self-confidence that let him take criticism with grace.
I had a solid year of more experience than he did. Closer to two. I held myself to the expectation that I should be better than him at karate.
But his skill level had been gaining on mine fast since he'd started. I remember sparring him in preparation for a tournament and noting that even as a yellow belt, his speed had increased exponentially from where he'd started. Then there was his technique improvement. Add a few more years of training and rank advancement, and he could be a great karate instructor.
Okay, I was jealous. Admitting that was something. Honesty is the best place to start when it comes to change. You have to diagnose the problem before it can be solved. And the truth is I had lost sight of one of the core ideas behind my training. Let me explain.
Martial arts is different from sports. Sports are about competition. There are winners and losers. Sports teach a lot about teamwork and leadership. There's lots to learn from the world of sports that carries over into the rest of life. Martial arts teaches lessons that focus more on the individual.
Martial arts brings people together as individuals on a common path. There are standards that cultivate respect for training partners and teachers. We push each other, driving one another to be better, helping each other focus on the moment at hand: the present sparring match, the present drill, the present self-defense application.
It's different from sports, because it's not about competing against another team or an opponent. It's not about winning. Oh sure, there's sparring matches with points and structure, but this is only a small part of my karate training.
Karate is about self-defense. The self-defense component is about being good enough to stop someone from hurting you. It's about training for the "what if," preparing for the event of needing to defend yourself, with the hope that you won't have to face that situation. With this mindset, I strive to make each block and strike as good as I can make it. I train to be ready for what might come. It is against this backdrop that I can see other martial artists as my training partners, not as competitors. They are the ones trying to help me.
Karate training isn't about being better than other martial artists. That's what I had lost sight of in my training with Mark. I didn't have to be better than him. I wasn't in a competition with him. I could see his skill and ability, which could motivate me to train harder. But the true fight was against myself. I needed to be better. Better than I was yesterday, better than the day before that. I needed to strive to be the best that I could be, even if that wasn't better than Mark.
At the end of the day, martial arts teaches broader lessons that apply to other areas of life, like don't compare yourself to other people. Strive to do your best in what you do. And don't see other people as competition in a title for the best. Rather, see others as people you can learn from, as people who are trying too, with their own strengths and weaknesses that may differ from your own.
So, it was okay that Mark had a better crescent kick. The next kick I threw was going to be better than my last. I paused, the image of the perfect kick before me in my mind, the true standard to which I was holding myself. I kicked through the target, and in my heart, I knew it was my best.
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